Autonomous, or “self-driving”, cars have been one of the most-anticipated advances in technology since the early days of the 1950’s. Unlike flying cars and nuclear-powered automobiles, two other prognostications that seem as farfetched today as they did back then, driverless cars are actually poised to reach our roads within the next decade. There are many large companies – Google, Audi, Ford and Honda among them – currently working on incorporating self-driving features into automobiles. The most advanced models can speed up, slow down, make turns, change lanes and automatically perform all other driving tasks without any intervention from a human operator whatsoever.

Over the years, certain driving functions have been made easier or even completely automatic for human drivers. Power windows, automatic transmissions, cruise control and parking assist are popular features that remove some of the drudgery from driving. The self-driving car is a significant extension of this principle to cover almost every aspect of driving.

While there have been limited and mostly unsuccessful attempts to create a fully autonomous road vehicle for decades, efforts were kicked into high gear with the introduction of the Grand Challenge competition by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration. In 2004, the first year of this race, none of the driverless vehicles entered into the Challenge completed the course, but by the next year, five vehicles did so. Performance continued to improve in the following years, and tech giant Google began hiring some of the participants to work on its own Self-Driving Car Project.

Google's self-driving car.
Google’s self-driving car.

The Google driverless vehicle fleet has accumulated more than a million miles driven during testing since 2009. There have been around a dozen accidents involving these cars, but Google claims that they were the fault of other motorists, not the prototype cars themselves. In order to achieve safe driving performance, the Google self-driving cars are equipped with an array of sophisticated sensing devices, including video cameras and LIDAR systems. These allow them to capture information about their environments in all directions. Using this data, computers on-board the vehicles construct an accurate model of the world. Their programming then determines what the correct course of action is: braking, accelerating, turning or whatever other activity is necessary to proceed towards the destination in safety.

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Google’s self-driving technology is already being tested on public roads in California. For the first time, Google is using vehicles that it built itself rather than installing its equipment on traditional automobiles. The online search leader has stated that its cars will be ready for public purchase by 2020.

While Google appears to be the closest to releasing a car to market, other firms aren’t very far behind. The Tesla Model S has seen limited features, like automatic parallel parking and highway lane changing, added to existing vehicles through software upgrades. Audi has tested a car that was able to go from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas with only occasional intervention by humans, and it intends to incorporate self-driving features into its A7 model. Meanwhile, the CEO of Ford announced the company’s commitment to producing a low-cost, self-driving alternative for those who can’t afford the prices charged by Tesla Motors, Audi and other high-end automakers. For years, there have been rumors that Apple has been working on a driverless vehicle, and these rumors seem to have been confirmed by the CEO of Uber during an interview with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show.

Speaking of Uber, they too, are rumored to be building a self-driving car. Can you imagine requesting an Uber to pick you up and up comes a completely empty self-driving car, you get in, tell it where you want to go and it drives you there? Crazy to think about, but super cool! This is a future I could get used to.

Additionally, by taking advantage of the Internet of Things, many driverless cars will be equipped with high speed internet for email access, web browsing and other online activities. People, freed from the burden of navigating through traffic, will be able to get business and personal tasks accomplished while traveling to their destinations.

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Almost everyone connected with the auto industry thinks that we’ll see self-driving cars hit the road sooner rather than later. With the adoption of this technology will come a reduction in accidents, greater convenience, less tickets, and countless hours of driver time freed up for productive pursuits. In fact, the average commute time in the United States has been calculated to be 25 minutes per day. If you do a little math that ends up becoming 6,500 minutes (or 108 hours) per year assuming you work 5 days per week all year. That’s a lot of time to spend driving a car — not mention all the time you spend driving to other places and sitting at red lights. So as you can see, it’s no wonder why so many people in the auto (and tech) industry are so bullish on self-driving cars. It’s almost certain that these new vehicles will replace traditional models as people become more aware of their advantages.

Leaving us with the question: what will you do with all that extra time you won’t be spending driving a car? Let us know!

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